Feature

A four-letter pain remedy

British researchers explain why screaming profanities could help lessen physical pain

“Holy @$#%!” said Adam Hinterthuer in Scientific American. It turns out that “dropping the F-bomb” and other swear words can actually relieve physical pain. At least that’s the finding of psychologists at Britain’s Keele University, who had students hold their hands in freezing cold water and yell first profanities then “more socially acceptable words.” When cursing, students held their hands in about 40 seconds longer.

The researchers, writing in the journal NeuroReport, suggest that “spewing foul language” triggers our “fight-or-flight” response, said Paul Taylor in Canada’s Globe and Mail, releasing adrenalin and prompting other physiological pain-tolerance changes. That contradicts earlier theories, that swearing made pain worse by embellishing its severity.

The results were also a surprise to lead researcher Richard Stephens, said BBC News, who came up with the idea for the study after hitting his thumb with a hammer. The research might help explain and validate the “centuries-old practice of cursing,” but Stephens has a word of warning for the foul-mouthed—“casual swearing” lessens the pain-fighting effect.

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